Markets and Fairs in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

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Markets and Fairs in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Markets and fairs have ancient origins in Ireland, reaching back to the aonach (fair) in the native Irish tradition and to margadh (market), a loan word from the Viking world. Over the course of history, markets and fairs underwent mutations, yet their days remain fixed in the Irish psyche. Lá aonaigh (fair day) and lá margaidh (market day) engage the range of the senses and carry a raft of cultural meaning.

For the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the most complete inventory of markets and fairs is to be found in a parliamentary report of 1853. This report records the name of each market and fair by location and county. It specifies the date of the patent or license, the name of the licensee, and the days on which the market or fair was held. The majority of the patents were allocated to individuals, usually landowners. Their provision ushered in modernizing influences. This much is clear from an analysis of some of the original licenses and from an examination of the associated tolls. Taken together, these demonstrate that the intended function of markets and fairs was to facilitate the sale of local agricultural produce for cash and thereby promote the commercialization of agriculture.

Once or twice a week the market served as an exchange center for a surrounding rural area. Most of the produce on offer, including butter, oats, wheat, flax, cattle, and horses, derived from local farms, whereas the market also afforded to landowners and their tenants opportunities for purchasing goods ranging from salt to domestic utensils and agricultural implements. The market as a mechanism of trade fitted routinely into the life of small towns and villages, of which there were 349 dispersed throughout the island in 1853.

The location of fairs was far less discriminating. According to the report of 1853, fairs were held at 1,297 different places in Ireland. However, towns and villages were the site of greatest frequency, with many of their fairs graduating to monthly occurrences by the mid-nineteenth century. This is well seen in County Limerick. By the second half of the eighteenth century this mid-Munster county had formed part of the most extensive of the fair hearths of Ireland, and the aggregate of its fairs in urban locations increased from 102 in 1787 to 175 in 1850.

Fair day spawned a whole range of transactional activity, including the buying and selling of cattle, sheep, pigs, pedlery (items and commodities offered for sale by peddlers or itinerant traders), sometimes horses, agricultural implements, and linen and woolen cloth; and it brought a much-needed injection of capital into the life of small urban settlements. About 1900, the Limerick town of Newcastle West, for instance, acted as a veritable catchall on a fair day. Here knotted gatherings assembled and broke, money changed hands, bills got paid, and publicans and shopkeepers waxed rich for the day. Even in the case of small villages the significance of fair day should not be underestimated. At Kilteely, County Limerick, for example, fairs in the 1840s drew large numbers of victuallers from County Cork and from the various towns of County Limerick, and sufficient transactional activity was generated for proceedings to last two days at a time.

Markets and fairs tended to sometimes occupy dual locations. On the one hand, the market came to be centrally located in the market square or main street; on the other, the fair was consigned to a marginal venue. Such duality is well seen in estate villages like Dunlavin in County Wicklow or Milltown Malbay in County Clare, where the centrally located market house contrasts with the peripheral fair green. The first may be taken to represent the world of the landlord; the second, that of his tenants, and the symbolic interplay between the two was often expressed in terms of conflict.

Conflict and violence were common features of fair days; market days were in general more muted. At the heart of much of the violence of a fair day were: a lashing out at the makers of painful historical change by the various agrarian collectivities from the 1760s onward; an inveterate love of feuding and a commitment to clan and territory as epitomized by faction fighting; and a hardening of ethnic or religious cleavage, as exemplified by sectarian conflict. Faction fighters in particular targeted towns and villages whenever great assemblies were in session. Of these, fairs constituted the great majority, and most of the recorded encounters pertain to fair days. In the period 1806 through 1811, for example, frequent fights occurred at fairs in south Tipperary, Kilkenny, and Waterford. The contending factions were known as the Caravats (Carabhait) and Shanavests (Sean-Bheisteanna). Hundreds of men usually took part, sometimes thousands. Once, at the fair of Kilgobnet in County Waterford, an Armageddon between the two sides failed to materialize, owing to prior disclosure to the military. But many encounters did occur at a time when the traditional faction stick was replaced by the ash plant weighted with lead. These weapons were supplemented by homemade swords and spears, and by whatever firearms could be mustered. Not surprisingly, many fights ended in fatalities. No fewer than twenty people were killed at the May fair of Golden, County Tipperary, in 1807. Altogether, hundreds must have died.

As well as notoriety, fairs also attracted celebrity. The Ould Lammas Fair at Ballycastle in County Antrim and Spancel Hill Fair in east Clare are celebrated in song. The Puck Fair of Killorglin, County Kerry, takes its name from the eponymous male goat that was "sometimes ornamented and paraded about the fair." It was the midsummer horse fair which first drew the Travellers (or Tinkers, then known as horse dealers) to Rathkeale around 1840, and a fair on the Cork-Kerry borderland brought "long-tailed" (an expression often used to denote a strong sense of identity and extensive itinerant connections) clans to converge "on a green fit / for a fabled stud of horses: / the hearth of Knocknagree." Ultimately, after 1900 nearly all the fairs and many of the markets failed to withstand the ruthless thrust of modernity.

SEE ALSO Migration: Seasonal Migration; Rural Industry; Towns and Villages


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Patrick J. O'Connor

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Markets and Fairs in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

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